In recent weeks we’ve been reading Luke’s account of Jesus’ parables. The Lost Silver Coin, the Prodigal Son who demands his inheritance while his father is still alive, then foolishly loses it, the Dishonest Manager who rewrote his master’s debts and today, the Rich Man and Lazarus, the beggar. These are all stories we can relate to, and these are all stories about people and money.
These particular parables work together to give us a glimpse of the afterlife and information about how to prepare for it – and specific traps to avoid.
I think Jesus chose examples centered around money and property with a purpose. He makes the purpose clear in the introduction to the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. The Pharisees had heard Jesus’ parables, and they ridiculed Jesus for his low regard for riches and money.
The Pharisees were lovers of money. Nothing unusual here, since many people at that time used money and material possessions as the measure of a man’s worth. Believe it or not, some still do that today. But Jesus told them, “You justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.”
Jesus’ concern is not about money specifically. Jesus is concerned with how people use it, our attitudes about money. We can use money well by making it our servant, or we can idolize, even worship money, and let money use us, making us money’s servant. We can assess whether or not we worship money by thinking seriously about our own practices: are we hoarders or sharers? Do we give alms, dispense charity, ease the sufferings of others? Or do we measure our worth by the size of our portfolio?
Jesus sums this up in the saying, “No man can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”
Why money? Why this focus on money? In these chapters Jesus uses money to contrast the material world, Mammon, and the spiritual world, God. Money represents the values of the visible world of our physical senses. God is God. God is Love. Love cannot be seen or measured. Love is an invisible power which guides and directs our spiritual senses. Love of money and the world is directly opposed to love of God and the transforming power of Love.
These chapters of Luke also give us a glimpse of the kingdom of God. Notice the parallels between the physical world and the spiritual world as Jesus describes it, particularly in the story of the Unnamed Rich Man and Lazarus the Beggar.
First the “this life” side of the story: The rich man was a voluptuary; he feasted sumptuously every day, lived in luxury, wore expensive clothes, and possessed a fine city mansion. Lazarus was a poor beggar living in misery, lying in the gutter outside the gate of the rich man’s townhouse. Lazarus was hungry, wracked with pain and attended only by street dogs who tormented him by licking and nipping at his open sores. Lazarus hungered for even the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table – which says he didn’t get them. The rich man did not give alms or even lift a finger for Lazarus - but not from ignorance. He knew Lazarus’ name and sorry situation, perhaps from the times his servants tried to permanently shoo Lazarus away.
Now comes the other, parallel side of the story. The next stage of eternity; The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's bosom. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.
Good Lord! The nameless rich man is unchanged by death! Is Jesus telling us that unless we repent of our sins in life our sins persist after death? Not even a respectful, “Hello Lazarus, nice to see you. Glad it worked out well for you. Say, could you perhaps spare a little drink of water.”
We don’t even hear him say; “Praise be to you Father Abraham. Your holiness and greatness are such I am honored to even be able to gaze upon you from afar. Is it possible for you to arrange even the smallest amount of relief for me in my difficult circumstance? Perhaps some water?”
Nope. We hear, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me and order Lazarus over here with at least a sip of water!” The rich man had separated himself from Lazarus, objectified him. Lazarus was an object, an impediment at his gates. No sense of fellow Jew, no sense of fellow human. No sense of communion with Lazarus. No sense of love.
All through the Bible, Old Testament and new, we hear the phrase “Equity.” God demands, requires equity. God laid out the rules governing all of creation, all energy and matter. Isaac Newton catalogued some of God’s rules in his Laws of Motion and Laws of Thermodynamics. Fundamental to all Newton’s Laws is the concept of Equity, which Newton called Conservation of matter and energy: there can be transformation, but nothing can be added or removed from the system. Basic to all transformation is equity. For whatever is transformed, there is an equation, and one side equals, balances the other. When Jesus describes Abraham saying, “Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish,” we are shown an example of Equity.
Equity rules. And equity rules not just in the world of matter and energy. Jesus is showing us that how we deal with circumstance on this “physical life” side of the eternity equation is yoked by law to what happens on the other side, the side that follows our death, the Spiritual reality. There are even hints in Jesus’ presentation and details that what happened to the Rich Man and Lazarus may be more than a parable. It may be Jesus’ teaching from his memory of events viewed with his “God’s Eye View” of life and death and may be reporting a real example to us.
Between this story and the story of the dishonest manager and other parables we get strong hints this life is probably an audition for the life to come. It may be that Jesus wasn’t kidding when he tells us, “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another's, who will give you that which is your own?”
Jesus is telling us God is not “judging” in the sense of pondering and coming up with a ruling on each of our lives. It might be better to think of final “judgment” as the call of an umpire describing the outcome of the play, rather than a judge weighing whether or not a law applies to the circumstance.
Jesus makes it clear he did not come to judge, but to help us understand the rules of the universe, to save us from ignorance. Jesus came because God is love and loves us. He wants to call us “Safe!”
Talk about Love. Jesus loves us so much he set aside his glory as Lord of Creation to clarify and punctuate with his own life and death what Moses and the Prophets had been telling us. God spoke to us through Moses and the prophets. The religious leaders who should have understood and taught the people, fell down on their job.
As we close, we can see the theme in our other readings. Nothing new here. In the prophet Jeremiah’s time, they thought Jeremiah was crazy for claiming God instructed him to purchase a plot of land in Jerusalem. What kind of madman would buy land for cash with the Babylonian barbarians at the gate. Well, someone who heard, trusted, and acted on instructions from God. Even though Jeremiah had been proved right before, their minds couldn’t accept the reality of God. Yes, the Babylonians broke the walls and carried Jerusalem off captive to Babylon. It took 70 years for the exiles to return, but grapes were cultivated again at home in Jerusalem, just as the Lord promised. Equity.
Paul told Timothy that he used to think he was “smart” but now his eyes have been opened. We brought nothing into, and we will take nothing out of this world. We are only here for a season.
Paul asks Timothy to pass a warning on to those who think they are financially “secure.” You are not secure. Do not lean on your wealth and security. Trust in the Lord, share, share what you have. Don’t clutch your possessions, your money, your talent, clinging on to things in fear. Show yourself fearless to yourself and to the great cloud of witnesses watching, witnesses who like us are part of the body and mind of Christ.
Especially as we get on in years, we can think of ourselves as rounding third and heading for home. Whether we can trot in easily or need a wild slide, let’s get ourselves ready to live hoping to hear that wonderful call from the umpire at home, “Safe.”